Sonoyo Mizuno as Kyoko in Ex MachinaTWITTER/peppermindsblog

Female robots in film and television are by no means a novel phenomenon. Ever since the appearance of the mesmerising Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the female robot has become a common, albeit unique, character in Western cinema. Uneasily suspended between the human and the mechanic, the specific existential crises associated with robots are further exacerbated when considering the concept of robotic womanhood. Female robots negotiate not only with notions of sentience and consciousness, but also with the complex dynamic between their femininity and objecthood as a mechanical being usually created by men for the pleasure of men. What happens to these complex dialectics once you examine the trend of the female Asian robots that have populated numerous sci-fi films and TV shows?

“Whilst Kyoko does fight against her creator, her character is nullified by her overtly pornified presentation.”

This question was prompted by a conversation that I had with my father after watching Ex Machina, an excellent sci-fi thriller about a scientist creating the perfect “human-passing” robot. We noted the inclusion of Asian female robots in the film - one of the scientist’s robot assistants, Kyoko, is played by Japanese-English actress Sonoya Mizuno, and as is later revealed in the film, a previous robot that the scientist kept was also Asian. Kyoko is portrayed in a highly sexualised and racialised manner, having been programmed without a voice to serve the scientist’s sexual and material needs. Whilst Ava (a white robot) is given an emotional depth that allows her to explore her humanity beyond her robothood, Kyoko is denied the same agency by her creator and possibly by the makers of the film. The fact that Kyoko is Asian implies that there are racial barriers to who can access their personhood – Ava is permitted by her creator to ‘become’ human and transgress her objectified status whereas the Asian robot is conditioned to live a life of sexual servitude.

Kyoko and Ava in Ex MachinaTWITTER/kamikakes08

Arguably, Kyoko primarily functions as a sub plot in Ava’s grander narrative arc. At the end of the film, Kyoko fights against her creator and dies, sacrificing herself so that Ava can escape. Once again, the white robot is afforded her freedom, but only because Kyoko’s possibility of autonomy is quashed. Moreover, the revelation that Ava’s appearance was modelled on the protagonist’s porn history suggests that Kyoko was similarly modelled on the scientist’s own fetishistic desires, especially when the second Asian robot featured in the film only appears onscreen naked. Even after the second robot is deactivated, she is still portrayed sexually, hanging in her creator’s closet as a lifeless object, representing a trophy he has collected in his ongoing scientific experiment. She is further stripped apart when Ava uses her artificial skin to decorate her own body as she sets out to explore the outside world, once again placing an Asian robot as a secondary plot device in the white woman’s narrative.

It’s not a stretch to say that the ethnicity of the robots intensifies their objectification. “Asian girls” is one of the most popular categories on porn websites, and in my own personal experience, I have been dehumanised by countless men who think nothing of telling me just how much they “love Asian girls”. I feel sympathy with the Asian characters in Ex Machina because I often get reduced to the category of “Asian girls”, as if we were a homogenous group of unidentifiable robots rather than thinking, feeling humans. By playing with the audience’s conceptions of Asian women as both submissive and inherently sexual, we in turn conceive of Kyoko as a compliant and erotic robot, there to fulfil the desires of other characters without ever asserting her own identity. Whilst Kyoko does fight against her creator, her character is nullified by her overtly pornified presentation that conforms to prejudiced assumptions about Asian women.

Gemma Chan as Anita in HumansTWITTER/SAINTMERRIN

Some onscreen depictions of Asian robot women do more to explore their humanity. I recently started watching Humans, in which Gemma Chan plays a “synthetic” named Anita trying to assert control over her identity. Anita is undeniably sexualised by male members of the Hawkins family and her personhood remains in constant contention as the family press and prod her to see just how “human” she is. The choice casting of Gemma Chan, a beautiful British-Chinese actress, further cements her as an objectified servant who fulfils the needs of her affluent white owners. However, throughout the series, the audience sees more of Anita’s emotional complexity, as she gradually rejects the racialised and sexualised moulds that others enforce on her. The camera zooms in on her at intimate moments, and even if we are not privy to the thoughts themselves, subtle face movements reveal the rich inner life that the “soulless” robot experiences.

“Do filmmakers see Asian women as pliable, compliant, submissive, and therefore robot-like?”

Whilst these films and TV series feature Asian characters, representation by itself is not valuable if it only seeks to affirm prejudices about marginalised groups. Humans tackles the issue of Asian female robots with nuance and sensitivity, granting agency to Anita even in her private moments. However, a lot of productions which feature Asian female robots, from Anomalisa to Ghost in the Shell, degrade their humanity by portraying them as objects. After all, if something is a robot with no inner value or mind of its own, existing only to serve the interests of others, why treat them as a rational subject at all?


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This presentation of robots as Asian women speaks volumes about our preconceived notions of Asian femininity, and these examples should make us think more about why we align Asian women with robotism. Do filmmakers see Asian women as pliable, compliant, submissive, and therefore robot-like? Do representations of Asian women as mechanical robots stem from entrenched societal prejudices which regard us as inhuman? Do Western filmmakers assume that Asian women lack any character or identifiable traits and are thereby similar to mass-produced robots who exist for their users’ sake? These are the questions I leave you with, so that next time you see an Asian robot woman on screen, you will do more to challenge these degrading depictions and instead, offer these characters a life of their own.